Using e-drums live

Monday, 16 December 2019 1:49 pm

No matter what kit you’re using, a few basic rules will ensure you sound good live, as Allan Leibowitz reports.

Sound restrictions, quick changeovers, the need for special sounds – a number of factors are driving the increased use of electronic drums on stages around the world.

Whether you’re playing a club in Hackensack, New Jersey or a stadium in Stockholm, Sweden, once you connect your lines out to the PA, your sounds are largely someone else’s concern, so we spoke to some of those folks for their advice.

According to New York-based audio engineer Michael Lawrence of Precision Audio Services, one advantage of e-drums is that they overcome the volume challenge posed by acoustic drums which forces the sound engineer to bring the other mix elements up loud enough to balance with the drums. “E-drums can greatly reduce stage volume, allowing the mix engineer to achieve a balanced mix at a lower level. We can still turn up if we want certain parts of the show to be louder, but we no longer have a lower limit that requires the show to be loud. It also really cleans up the mix at any level, because we don't have snare and cymbal wash bleeding into all the vocal mics, and this makes a huge difference out front,” he explains.

Gary Grimm (pictured above), drum tech to stars like Mick Fleetwood and Mark Schulman (P!nk), sees consistency of sound as another major e-drum benefit. “Engineers would have the same parameters of the sound(s) and levels every time,” he says.

Of course, not all e-drums are created equal and Grimm notes that some don’t allow drummers to manipulate the parameters as needed because the module doesn’t have the editing capability. He cites the examples of volume, channel separation of different sounds, pitch, left/right/middle, etc.

Another challenge which Lawrence sees is amplification limitations. “With e-drums, we're asking the PA system to do a lot more work than it usually does if we're used to simply balancing the rest of the mix against a largely-acoustic or slightly-reinforced drum sound; so in a small venue environment, you may find that the PA doesn't have enough gas to get to show levels cleanly,” he explains.

A common issue discussed in e-drums forums is module output. Some modules are only capable of sending a stereo signal with separate left and right feeds to the desk. Others have direct outs for every instrument, while some have banks of outs for toms and crashes, and only separate feeds for kick, snare and hi-hat.

Grimm believes you don’t have to have separate outs, but it helps. “Having separate channels would allow the user and the sound engineer to possibly mix more succinctly. Using only a LEFT & RIGHT mix out can be fine as well. Also, the engineer may only have enough channels to receive all the direct instruments individually.”

For Lawrence, individual lines out is a must. “I'd certainly want direct outs - consider the fact that a FOH engineer is used to looking at eight-plus inputs from the drum kit. Having this granularity allows us to balance - in level and tone - the kit components themselves, and in the mix as a whole - and the required balance can change from song to song.

“If we only have a pair of drum inputs, we are pretty limited with what we can do to fit the mix elements together - we can no longer use level, EQ, and dynamics processing on the individual kit elements.

“How do you cut some ring from a tom, or roll some harshness out of the cymbals, if you only have one EQ choice for the whole kit?

“It also prevents us from doing popular types of processing - for example, routing the kick and snare mics into a bus for parallel compression, and then mixing this back in with the drum sound. And do we really want all that snare reverb on the cymbals as well? Combined outputs will end up tying the hands of an experienced mix engineer, and would very likely lead to compromises in a mix.”

If all that sounds too confusing, Lawrence suggests leaving it to the pros: “If you've got a mix engineer out front, it's best to let them do their job.”

Of course, less well-endowed e-drummers can still strut their stuff on stage. This does, however, mean optimising the two-channel output by applying some thought and planning.

For Grimm, the key advice is to keep ‘like’ sounds together. “In other words, if you only have LEFT/RIGHT mix outputs, don’t mix cymbals and other percussive pitches that are in the upper register with drums that would be in a lower register (on the same channel). Or, if you are only using drums, then bass drum and toms on one side and snare(s), etc. on the other. “If you are using a click track (metronome), that should have its own channel, if possible.” Some modules allow you to send the click to headphone only.

Lawrence agrees about the need to use two channels wisely. “Rather than use the two outputs chasing an elusive ‘stereo’ mix that doesn't tend to hold up in larger rooms anyway, I'd use the two outputs as ‘stems’ that at least give some control over the blend. Probably kick/snare/toms on one output, and hi-hat/cymbals on the other would be my recommendation. That will allow at least some basic balancing ability out front.”

For gigging drummers, Grimm suggests starting out with the best instrument you can afford. “With electronics, you can only get out of it what it offers.”

Grimm’s other advice is to keep it simple. “Don’t make your work more complicated than necessary. And definitely make notes. You may need them when editing or if you accidentally lose your sounds.”

Lawrence is a big believer in communication. “If it's a venue with a house engineer, let them know that you can adjust your levels at the module, if need be. This is a great example of how important communication is - don't be afraid to have a conversation with the engineer out front about this. It's our job to help you sound the best possible and have a great show, and we can do that job better if you talk to us!”

On the technical side, his advice is to be careful with the effects. “Reverb sounds awesome in headphones, but in a space, it might be too much. The mix engineer can always add more, but they can't take it away!

“Additionally, once levels are set, try to avoid futzing with the master volume. If you change the level at the module, you'll change what's going into the mixing console, so you're changing the mix out front and everyone's monitor mix, not just yours. If you want more or less in your monitor, just ask,” he suggests.